I'm A Queer Iranian Refugee In America, And This Is Why I Don't Feel Safe Here, Either
My name is Mia* and I’m a refugee living in the U.S. But before I tell my story, let me quickly explain to you that, OK, my name is not really “Mia.” That’s my pen name. You’re about to find out why I have one.
I came here in December 2013, after fleeing my home country of Iran. It was in Ankara, Turkey that I was first granted “refugee status” by the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency). This is because I met at least one of five “grounds for persecution” standards in Iran — “membership in a particular social group” — my “social group” being "homosexuals." I’m a lesbian.
Not only is lesbianism intensely stigmatized in Iran, but all homosexual acts are considered illegal under Sharia law. The punishment for lesbian sexual acts — which are called Musaheqeh — are as follows according to the Islamic Republic of Iran:
Again, these corporal punishments are the “written law” in Iran — but I’ve seen and heard about what Iranian authorities really do to gay people there. Women have been stoned to death for being lesbians. Gay men are often hanged.
When I finally fled five years ago — at the age of 25 — my family didn’t know about my sexual orientation. To this day, my father still has no idea. I hope he never finds out.
My family had always been incredibly strict with me — I couldn't go out with friends as a child (I'd never even been to a birthday party until I got to the U.S.); I could only study when I was at home, even on the weekends; I wasn't allowed to be out after dark once I grew a little older; and by no means was I ever permitted to be alone with a boy. I was totally trapped. On top of all that, I came to realize I was gay. When I finally fled to Turkey five years ago — at the age of 25 — my family didn’t know about my sexual orientation. To this day, my father still has no idea. I hope he never finds out.
For a year after I went away, my mother was the only one in my family who would speak with me on the phone, because I left — my father wouldn't, nor would my brother; not even one of my many cousins. No one. But my mom felt guilty for having always been so strict with me. We cried on the phone together a lot. She still didn't know I was a lesbian, though.
I did tell the UNHCR in Ankara I was a lesbian. That's what helped me attain "refugee status" there — explaining how I would undoubtedly be persecuted back home in Iran for my sexual orientation, from both the government and from my family. I told the agency that my father, being the strict and old-fashioned Iranian that he was, could potentially kill me if he found out. It would by no means be an unprecedented reaction back home.
So the agency decided that I would go to Philadelphia to live, and that I would fly into New York City first. I was happy to be granted “refugee status,” but I knew very little about America at the time. I didn't really care where the UNHCR placed me, so long as it was away from Iran and far from my family, who I could not be a out lesbian with. To a lot of Iranians, America is either one of two concepts: an enemy of our country (as a schoolgirl, I proclaimed "Death to America!" every morning like children here recite the "Pledge of Allegiance") — or it's some dream-like nation filled with constant opportunities for fame and wealth. I didn't believe in either one of those ideas. I just wanted to get away.
The weather was windy and grey when I arrived in the country, and my Nationalities Service Center (NSC) caseworker picked me up and drove me three hours to my new home in Philadelphia. My English was shaky at best back then, but I managed to schedule a follow-up appointment with the NSC once I got settled. I told them as best I could that I wanted to find work right away.
My caseworker suggested that I work in an Arabic halal market, which offended me. I’m not Arabic and I don't speak Arabic. I speak Farsi. Still, my caseworker didn’t care. After she “found” me that one job, she told me I was on my own.
Most people never get to learn that I’m not religious anyway, or that I’m a lesbian, or that my favorite color is purple — all they seem to see when they look at me is “Muslim, Muslim, Muslim.”
This experience set a sort of precedent for me: I found myself constantly being reduced to my “Middle Eastern-ness" in America. For instance, when I did land a position as a hostess at a national chain restaurant outside of Philly, my boss asked me after a month if I’d prefer working in the kitchen because there were “other Middle Eastern foreigners there.”
Over the past three-plus years, these microaggressions have gotten worse. These days, people are more rude to me than ever about being Muslim — and I certainly don’t dare tell them I’m also a lesbian. The irony is, I’m technically only Muslim “on paper” because I had to declare a religion at the UNHCR. I’m not a practicing Muslim. People don’t understand that, back in Iran, I could never have been a “practicing Muslim” and a “practicing lesbian” at the same time. Most people never get to learn that I’m not religious anyway, or that I’m a lesbian, or that my favorite color is purple — all they seem to see when they look at me is “Muslim, Muslim, Muslim.” I can't tell you how many times I'm asked about where I'm from before I even have a chance to speak.
I think President Trump is mostly responsible for the surge of all-around bigotry that I, and so many other American Muslims and American members of the queer community, have noticed since the election — the macro-aggressions, of course, but for the micro-aggressions, too. Even the most progressive people I know, my girlfriend included, seem to want me to assimilate just a little bit more.
One evening last November, for instance, I put a hijab on while strolling around town. I don't know what exactly prompted me to want to wear it that night — it had been years. Maybe I just needed to commit some quaint act of defiance in the wake of presidential election. I don't know. My partner and I took a walk down a fairly busy street, hand-in-hand, and all the while she kept suggesting that I might want to take my hijab off. She was worried I might get harassed by someone. I think she was worried for her own sake, too. I think she had a right to be afraid.
President Trump doesn’t just welcome hate; he incites it. Even now, as his administration tries to claim the recent “travel ban” was not, in fact, a Muslim ban — because that would be too blatantly racist and unconstitutional — he also told CNN he thinks “Islam hates America.” After the Orlando gay nightclub shooting last June, he literally went on a “Muslim ban” tangent, saying, "we cannot continue to allow thousands upon thousands of people to pour into our country, many of whom have the same thought process as this savage killer."
For those of us who are also LGBTQ, the situation is even more difficult. Not long ago, in 2011, 81,372 refugees and asylum seekers either applied for or fled to the U.S. — and 3,000 of those individuals may have eventually identified as LGBT once their statuses were safely established. I say “may have” because the Forced Migration Review — the organization that actually counted the numbers — suspected that, though 3,000 of those people seeking refuge from oppressive countries identified as gay, many would likely remain in the closet, no matter their whereabouts or presumed safety, because being scared was so ingrained in them. I wish I could say they learn they are safe here, but I know better.
Sometimes I wonder if I made the wrong decision leaving Iran. Though I have a partner here and I can come and go from my home as I please, I find myself trying to balance this new American oppression in my head with Iran’s old-world oppression. Which is worse? Living in a predictable environment in which I know both my family and my government won't let me to live as I desire? Or living in an unpredictable environment in which I have certain freedoms, but can only hope to enjoy them one day at a time? I honestly don’t want to find out the answer to these questions, but I suppose I will have to.